Newark Museum’s Director Aims To Keep The City’s Cultural Heart Beating

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Newark, New Jersey continues to brand itself as an inclusive cultural hub. The urban community has devoted itself to celebrating all of its nearly 300,000 inhabitants through resources and programming, and the Newark Museum has continued to contribute to the city’s embracive techniques.

Established in 1909, the Garden State’s largest museum holds historical artifacts and features extensive collections of the arts in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Newark Museum’s founder John Cotton Dana established that the museum was to be a center for art and history appreciation for all who enter its doors, and the newest President of the Museum Linda Harrison is hoping to continue pushing his vision forward.

Harrison is the eighth director and CEO in the museum’s history and its first African-American director; she will start her tenure in January of 2019. Harrison began her career in the business realm, but after noticing an imbalance in visibility pertaining to arts organizations, her relationship with the discipline blossomed.

“I recognized the need in the industry for diverse thinking and voices layered with business expertise that could positively impact an organization,” Harrison tells VIBE. She sits with a cup of tea as the sun drenches of one the massive museum’s conference rooms on a chilly Thursday in mid-October. “I’m committed to inclusivity, access, and diversity in our path to being a living museum that celebrates cultures and ignites new conversations,” she continues.

Growing up in Chi-Town’s Hyde Park, Harrison explains that a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago as a young girl proved to her that museums were not just for white people. However, not only did she not see a representation of people of color in the art at the museum, but there were also no indications of people of color working in these spaces. She aimed to implement inclusivity during her time as director and CEO of the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco, and she’s hoping to bring her inclusion and diversification efforts to Newark Museum.

“MoAD and the Newark Museum share some similarities in that they are both part of their respective cities’ revitalization efforts,” she reveals. “MoAD has consistently had the most diverse audiences at its exhibitions and events, contributing to the vibrancy of the City through its relevant artistic programming. The Newark Museum sits right in the center of this transformation and has the opportunity to be the cultural hub as the largest museum in New Jersey.”

Could these revitalization efforts make the Essex County city as artistically significant as San Francisco? While Harrison says the areas are too different to be compared art-wise, she’s hoping that Newark will continue to implement inclusivity in all facets.

“Newark is on an exciting journey,” she says with a grin. “[Newark Museum is], in a sense, an Urban cultural change agent that will work with businesses, education and government sectors to reimagine the city. I’m looking forward to discovering how to deepen our existing partnerships and [how to] discover new partners that will collectively make all aspects of the arts a key part of the city’s appeal as a destination city.”

Much like venues such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and Rutgers University-Newark, the museum is becoming an “anchor of diversity, inclusion, and access” thanks to year-to-year program innovations and the director’s vision. Harrison is optimistic and hopeful about new programs bringing in newer sets of eyes to the institution, such as the museum’s “Late Thursdays,” a monthly event open to the public celebrating a different theme. She also champions the museum’s commitment to diverse exhibits and displays; currently, the museum is home to the ‘Kimono Refashioned’ exhibit, which celebrates the re-imagining of the Japanese garment through the years by traditional and high-fashion designers.

“There is no question in my mind that activating the museum with more visitor-driven type events like our Thursday Theme nights has new audiences connecting to the museum and rediscovering community,” she smiles. “Our younger adult audiences are the new guard, the new thought leaders [who are] bringing bold ideas that will drive the art, culture, and business.”

This year has given us many “firsts” in terms of people of color succeeding in high-profile positions. While Harrison believes that it’s never too late for these “firsts” to occur, she does hope that more women of color, in particular, will be able to see themselves in positions of power through visibility.

“Museums of the 20th century evolved from a status quo to the need for change to be locally and globally competitive and attract new audiences,” the historic director says. “Leaders of the relevant and successful 21st-century museum will be led by a much more diverse set of leaders. Women of color must and will be part of that mix, because of our experience and thought leadership skills.” She suggests that if museums, in particular, want to succeed, they need to implement an organizational structure that “reflects the community” to maintain “social and cultural relevance and connect in meaningful ways.”

Not only will the implementation of inclusivity in the arts give the museum a boost, but it also mirrors the current excitement and involvement in social justice. Harrison says that art and social justice go hand-in-hand, and she hopes that the city will continue to open civilians’ eyes and ears to what is going on in the world.

“Art… has always been intrinsically tied to social justice,” she notes. “Artists present us with point of views that often push us into new ideas and ways of thinking.” She highlights the city’s then-recent Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which amplifies the voices of poets and artists whose work inspire different approaches to thinking about the world.

Harrison is steadfast in her hope that much like the city it resides in, that Newark Museum will continue to be a cultural hub, and its growing reputation as one solidifies its importance as an anchor of diversity in the city. With this remarkably forward-thinking woman at the helm, it should continue to always be that way.

“Newark is already rich in its cultural assets, we simply need to share [the city’s growth] with our local, national and international communities,” she continues. “Our best way of doing this is to be a collaborative, innovative, relevant museum. Newark is poised to be a destination city. The Newark Museum is poised to be a destination museum.”

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